We come now to a third “spoke” on our worldview wheel, which this week will be considered under the heading of ritual, liturgy and symbol. We have considered the value of propositional truth. We have considered the importance of practical lifestyle. Now we are going to reflect on the importance of the unspoken but embodied aspect of worldview.
“We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of thethrone of the Majesty in the heavens; a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man” (Hebrews 8:2).
Our word liturgy comes from a word used in the Bible. Our common use of it comes from leitourgos, which refers to a minister in the priestly sense. That is its meaning here in our text, but it is also found this way in Rom. 15:16, and perhaps in Heb. 1:7. It also refers to a minister in a more general sense (Phil. 2:25), and even to the civil magistrate as God’s minister (Rom. 13:6). The minister in a priestly sense is the one who officiates at the altar, in accordance with the stipulated ritual assigned the the law. At the ultimate level, in the heavenly places, the Lord Jesus Christ enacts the ultimate liturgy. Knowing that every element of a Christian worldview on earth answers to something in the heavenly places, we should consider this. Our liturgies, our rituals, our symbols should self-consciously be an echo of what God has said in heaven.
Considering these texts, we therefore have scriptural grounds if we divide liturgy into two broad categories—formal and obvious, and embedded because it is largely invisible. The former makes a visitor ask a question like “Why do they do that?” And the latter might go unnoticed for generations without provoking a single question from anyone. An example of the former would be raising our hands in the singing of the Gloria Patri. An example of the latter would be why we have the pulpit in the center instead of off to the side—because exposition of the Word is central, not peripheral. And in some churches that do this, it might even mean that the Word is central as opposed to man-made traditions that are never required in the Bible—like having the pulpit in the center, or having a pulpit at all, for that matter. The former example (raising hands in the Gloria Patri) would become an example of the latter if everyone began doing it, and there were no exceptions for several hundred years. Then it would become a ritual observance invisible to everyone, and observance that retreated into the woodwork.
As you have gotten accustomed to worship here, or as you have invited friends or relatives to worship with us, perhaps one of the things you have had to discuss is why the whole thing seems so “thought out” or “planned.” Doesn’t this exclude the leading of the Holy Spirit? Well, no, not really. “For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ” (Col. 2:5). The word for order here is taxis—which could be rendered as regimentation. The idea that genuine feeling is necessarily spontaneous feeling is a modern idea that dies hard.
Without A Word:
Ritual actions are a way of speaking without speaking. If a group of men outside are praying, and they all take off their ball caps while doing so, they are speaking eloquently and they are doing so without a word. How is this possible? This should make us mindful of what St. Francis said to some of his disciples when he told them to go out and present to the gospel to everyone they met. And, he said, “use words if necessary.” But this does not make this form of worldview enactment a type of spiritual miming. What if ritual or symbol were just a way of putting on white grease paint and acting it out instead of just saying it? Then the criticism leveled against many ornate liturgists would hold—that it is all just “a show” offered for entertainment. But ritual shapes us, as much as any Bible verse you may have memorized. As one of the early church fathers said, “Lex orandi, lex credendi.” The law of prayer is the law of faith.
Ritual actions in worship required by Scripture:
bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, the use of water in baptism, singing psalms, the public reading of Scripture, the exposition of Scripture, worship on the first day of the week, and so forth.
Ritual or symbolic actions in worship consistent with Scripture:
standing for Scripture reading, pulpit in the center, the image of a cross, use of the Heidelburg Catechism in worship, use of the Apostles’ Creed
Ritual or symbolic actions outside worship consistent with Scripture:
Sabbath dinners, baby showers, learning the catechism, wedding ceremonies, saying grace over meals, prayer and blessing over the children at bedtime, birthday cakes, wedding rings, school uniforms, subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith, tapping your cleats with your baseball bat, graduation ceremonies, etc.
The Cross of Christ:
We considered a few weeks ago the truth that without the cross of Christ being proclaimed regularly and with power, lifestyle claims in the name of the Lordship of Jesus Christ disintegrate into a suffocating moralism. The same kind of thing will happen to ritual—if you have not been bored to death by religious mummeries, then you don’t know the full meaning of stupefaction. Remember the axle of grace, and that the death and resurrection of Jesus is the basis of all God’s grace to us. Many find explicit ritual (temporarily) refreshing because they are bored with the inanities of superficial and frothy worship. But apart from evangelical faith, this is like trying to deal with dullness by rearranging the furniture. Fine, but what are you going to do three days from now?
John Bunyan once said it would be better for your heart to be without words than for your words to be without heart. The same goes for your symbols, your rituals, your ceremonies. It would be better for your heart to be without rituals than for your rituals to be without heart. But fortunately, because of the grace of Christ, it is not necessarily one way or the other. You will have symbols and rituals. Two questions: Will they be biblical? And will they be heartfelt?